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Government cheese for the least of these

The young couple hovered over the dairy case, picking up blocks of processed cheese but not adding any to their cart.

Back and forth, they whispered. They were tense.

“Look at the list,” he said.

The young woman pulled out a pamplet from her bag and scanned it with her finger. She stopped and pointed something out to the young man. He nodded and chose a block of cheddar, putting it in their cart. He pushed the cart to the milk case. She held the small of her back, walking slowly and rubbing her belly. Baby, soon.

Poking out of her bag was the state of Colorado’s WIC folder.

The folder hasn’t changed after all these years? I marvelled to myself.

When our first baby was born, I reluctantly signed up for WIC. It stands for Women, Infants, and Children, and it provides checks to purchase milk, bread, eggs, cereal, fruits, beans, peanut butter, and formula for pregnant or nursing women, infants, and small children. Approved foods are on a strict, nutritious list.

At the time, my husband was working full-time at a TV station and even with a regular paycheck we barely kept our heads above water. We weren’t the unfair stereotypes of young, dropout mom with a dead-beat dad. We had college degrees. We were married. We came from nice places with nice families who took nice vacations.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

The WIC checks helped those first few months until I was able to find a part-time job that would work with our childcare needs and my husband’s odd TV station hours. Things were still tight, but we no longer needed to use the checks. I stopped going to the required appointments. It was an enormous relief. Eventually, my husband got a very good job in Denver and money was no longer a huge source of worry. I could buy all the milk and Corn Flakes I wanted.

During our season of poverty, I felt deeply ashamed each time I approached the checkout counter with my cart and my checks. As I handed checks over to the clerk, I couldn’t look him or her in the eye. I couldn’t look other shoppers in the eye.

Did that cold milk taste creamy? Was the cereal crunchy and filling? Were the eggs I scrambled fluffy?

I don’t remember. Shame puts a damper on taste buds. But nobody made me feel ashamed. I put that burden on myself.

The foods were enough to fuel me, though. I cared for our baby daughter, rocking her, taking her on walks on park paths. I was able to sing to her, play with her, shake rattles for her to reach. I nursed her, and when she weaned some of the formula she drank was paid for by Colorado taxpayers.

I still feel a snap of shame when I admit I was on WIC, and it’s been 12 years. Seeing that young couple at the store brought up those feelings again. I wanted to tell them things might be better a year from now. I know how it is. You won’t always have to buy peanut butter with governmental permission.

I’d tell them.

In a whisper, of course.

13 comments to Government cheese for the least of these

  • Gretchen

    I used WIC for a while. I think it was from #4 to #6. I wasn’t ashamed of it; I didn’t need it. I was recruited in the hospital by a WIC representative. They told me that if they couldn’t keep up the numbers of people using the program, it would be cancelled in our area. I will admit, it helped a lot to have some extra cheese, peanut butter, and Juicy Juice. I never used all the milk I was allowed.

    Sometimes I felt badly for holding up the check out line, because the checks always seemed to confuse the cashiers. When I am behind a mother using WIC now, I smile understandingly. I don’t think less of any woman willing to do what it takes to take better care of her family.

  • This is a great post. I love it!
    .-= The Casual Perfectionist´s last blog ..The monkeys’ doctor is right! =-.

  • We were on WIC once upon a time, too! I wished they would give us the debit cards they gave the food stamp folks. Those debit cards looked like any other and nobody could tell, but us WIC folk, we had the pamphlets and coupon book…it was humbling. Then again, humbled isn’t a bad way to begin a family.
    .-= Suzanne Temple´s last blog ..Baby Einstein =-.

  • We’ve been on WIC before too. Twice (meaning two stretches of time – one In The Beginning and the other When We Started Seminary).

    I know the sting well. But I also know the need. And I too am happy to wait behind women who are using those checks. I sometimes play with their fussy babies to show them I’m not irritated.
    .-= Megan´s last blog ..Rocking the Evangelical River =-.

  • We’ve also been on WIC. And I too remember the shameful feeling. And don’t get the wrong item, that is the worst. I only did that once. I also got so good at picking out the items that I didn’t have to consult the folder. And then I self-consciously arranged the items on the belt grouped together with the coupon. I tried to only use one or two coupons at a time.

    I haven’t seen anyone use WIC checks here but now they have signs that say WIC approved item. And oddly enough that’s the milk and cheese that I buy. And I feel no shame putting it in my cart.
    .-= Kristin´s last blog ..Yesterday’s Outfit =-.

  • A friend of mine proudly told me about being on WIC when she had her first baby. I thought it was some great something, until my husband told me we would never qualify, and it wasn’t something of which to be proud. That said, I know not every family is making it, and if it is that or complete welfare, I think WIC is the way to go.
    .-= Minnesotamom´s last blog ..Sunday Sunshine 08.02.09 =-.

  • Oh I can relate. As a young couple in college with a baby, we also had assistance early on in our marriage. All of the feeling you described are completely real.
    .-= Heth´s last blog ..Now To Sharpen All Those #2 Pencils =-.

  • I used the WIC program and felt/feel no qualms about it. I had worked previously and paid my fair share of taxes and knew that I and my DH would work in the future and pay our fair share of taxes then as well. He was in college under the GI Bill as a Vietnam Era Veteran and I was at home with our young children. Funny thing was that with our student loans we made too much money to qualify for food stamps…

    WIC is a wonderful program and should be utilized by everyone who can qualify. The nutritional guidance I received at the time I’ve used even after I no longer used the program.

    I remember those years of young children and college courses as wonderful years. We made due by doing without all the extra and fancy stuff… WIC made it possible for us at the time to raise healthy babies.
    .-= Howdy´s last blog ..Home Sweet Home… =-.

  • Oh my, Gretchen! This post made me all teary by the end. I’m overly hormonal, probably, but your compassion is just so tangible.
    .-= Jenni´s last blog ..Do NOT go see the movie “Julie and Julia”… =-.

  • After my husband and I both lost our jobs this winter with two growing toddlers, one of whom has special needs, and with me being pregnant I experienced shame going to the WIC office. My husband’s parents,who live two states away, were extremely upset with us over it. But as I saw the burden of fearing he had let our children down begin lift off my husband I knew we were doing only what as good parents we needed to do. My husband and I lost our jobs through no fault of our own and my husband is still unemployed. I recently got a job but things are still exceptionally tight so we continue on WIC. I hope that someday I might be able to work with the WIC program in our area. The nurses and nutritionists who have helped me there have been kind and encouraging and have never once looked down their noses at me. They praised me exclusively breastfeeding and one even thanked me for overcoming my shame to come in and get the help we needed to get is through our most difficult time thus far.

  • This is the first post I’ve ever read on your blog. It was so lovely.
    .-= Tasha´s last blog ..What the Hell is That? =-.

  • We also received WIC during 2 of my pregnancies. I can totallly relate to your sentiment. If someone ahead of me in the grocery line has WIC checks, I make extra effort to make sure that they don’t feel hurried or frustrated on my account. I know the feeling well.
    .-= Jenn´s last blog ..Early Bird =-.

  • Rachel

    We were on WIC when I was pregnant with my first baby and in the Air Force. A lot of military families are on WIC; I remember standing in line at the Commissary and watching sometimes as many as five other families using the coupons. The cashiers were experts at the system. Unfortunately, I was living in a very bad part of San Antonio that meant the office I had to attend the mandatory appointments at were run by very hard women who were accustomed to their advice being ignored and even scorned by the uneducated and downtrodden woman who was typical of that area. I’m grateful we no longer feel that desperate need.

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